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Candidates: Legislative District 3

Sweeney commands South Jersey district with incumbent Assembly members fighting for seats.

In the 3rd District, a citadel of Democratic Party power, there simply aren't enough legislative seats to go around.

Through the magic of re-districting, first-term Republican Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco found himself transported to a place already represented by incumbent Democrats John Burzichelli, the deputy speaker, and Celeste Riley, the first woman from Cumberland County to serve in the Legislature.

At the top of the blue ticket is the state's most powerful elected Democrat, Senate President Stephen Sweeney.

The Republican Senate challenger, first-time candidate Michael Mulligan, describes the district as "heavily gerrymandered" to include Democratic strongholds in Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties. That has not daunted him or the third member of the Republican team, Dr. Robert Villare, running again after narrowly losing to Riley two years ago.

In a year in which most races are bland, the 3rd District appears to be a place that has gone through the looking glass. Democrat Sweeney is a former union organizer who pushed Republican Gov. Chris Christie's public worker pension and health benefits cuts through the Legislature, with the help of Burzichelli and Riley, a teacher who supported the reductions.

Meanwhile, Republican Mulligan, whose parents are teachers, had doubts about the cuts, and calls tenure "necessary." Despite high-volume rhetoric on the issue, much from his party, he said, "I see no evidence that student test scores are going to be better" by getting rid of tenure.

While he leans toward conservatism and considers Christie as "absolutely necessary" to curtail the state budget, Mulligan emphasized his willingness to follow his own judgment.

"I am not a garden variety, lockstep Republican," he said.

DiCicco has been a loyal Christie foot soldier, but is in no hurry to congratulate the district incumbents for providing the votes to get the pension and benefit cuts past strong opposition from unions and traditional Democrats.

Sweeney and Burzichelli "were part of the regime that increased taxes 115 times over the last decade," DiCicco said. "It took Republican leadership to steady the boat and achieve reform, such as the historic pension and healthcare law that will save taxpayers $120 billion over 30 years."

DiCicco also reaches beyond partisan boilerplate, promoting such policies as efficient land use in a heavily developed state, and protecting water supplies and other natural resources.

A lawyer and executive of a court-reporting and litigation services company, DiCicco said he has worked with small businesses on a jobs plan in an effort to boost the economy.

He also boasted that he has worked on issues involving the Delaware River Port Authority, which is significant to area commuters and businesses.

"I led the charge to reform the Delaware River Port Authority because my constituents are fed up with incessant toll increases caused by waste and mismanagement,” DiCicco said.

Villare did not return calls for comment, but his platform includes some novel approaches to curbing soaring health-insurance costs. A surgeon, he would allow physicians to volunteer their services in exchange for state malpractice coverage. He also promotes a plan to have the New Jersey Hospital Association offer insurance for low-income people.

In Burzichelli's view, "people want a government that is responsive to their needs" and Democrats have responded. He touted his vote to cap local property tax increases at 2 percent annually.

This is another issue where local Democrats found common ground with the Governor and Republicans like DiCicco, but Burzichelli does not credit them by name. Instead, he said, "Our opponents are running on taxing the middle class and protecting the rich."

New Jersey needs "bold reform to put New Jersey on a long-term path to a solid financial future," said Riley, who has lost favor with fellow teachers over the pension and benefits vote. Unions have been particularly irate, because Christie maneuvered Democrats into undercutting collective bargaining, and the vote cost Riley, as well as and her running mates, the backing of the New Jersey Education Association.

Riley said she has a first-hand view of the state’s economic problems as a teacher and a taxpayer. New Jersey's belt-tightening should not begin and end with its employees, but should extend to a general spending freeze "until our debt is under control," she said.

To find savings, Riley would authorize audits "of every government agency," and eliminate perks for public officials.

Despite having worked with Christie on several issues over the past two years, Sweeney said the Republicans "just don't get it … They think protecting the super rich will bring jobs back to South Jersey."

The flat tax ideas floated by some Republicans would "raise taxes on the poor and middle class while cutting taxes for the wealthy," according to Sweeney. Instead, he called for reinstating the so-called "millionaire's tax," which would increase the state's top marginal income tax rate.

While controversial, that idea may resonate in an area still suffering from the recession that ended, at least in official pronouncements, two years back.

"It's been tough down here" economically, with high unemployment in many communities, Mulligan agreed.

Even though the two slates hit on many of the same points, he acknowledged being "a long shot" to win on Tuesday.

That's the picture painted in stark black-and-white on reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission last month. Neither Mulligan nor Villare reported significant funding. The $101,000 in receipts and in-kind support DiCicco reported in mid-October seems respectable, until compared with the $1.1 million Sweeney's committee received in the same period.

In a race where publicity on the issues has been sparse, the Senate President recently attracted a flurry of coverage for still drawing on, entirely legally, funds from his last campaign for Gloucester County freeholder, an office he left at the end of last year. According to published reports, he has spent tens of thousands of dollars from that account on cigars, political dinners and donations to other political candidates and charities.

Still, Sweeney is well ahead, according to the latest Richard Stockton College/Zogby Poll commissioned by the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy. In the Assembly race, Burzichelli has a comfortable lead but Riley is just 4 points up on the two Republicans challengers, right at the poll's margin of error.

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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